8 Years On, Remembering 3.11

This article is based off of the experiences of Place to Grow founder Angela Ortiz

March 11th 2:46pm, a moment that would forever change the lives of thousands. The destruction was beyond anything imaginable; my first reaction when experiencing the aftermath of the disaster could only be described as incredulous disbelief. I had never seen destruction so close and at such a personal level. It was impossible not to feel hopeless in the face of the enormity of the task ahead.

The immediate aftermath was a frantic blur, yet one memory still remains clear in my mind. We were driving fast in a crowded van, but as the silhouette of an old fisherman caught my eye, it felt like time began to move in slow motion. Weathered skin, features shaped from the elements and lifestyle of a fisherman, strong and stout for his age. He was standing amidst the ruins of his life, holding an item from the remains. His red eyes glistened and as he let his hands drop, I had a flash of insight into his emotional state. Overwhelmed. Hopeless. I knew these emotions, I had felt them all my life. But in that moment I understood that what he was experiencing was an extreme, unimaginably more painful reality.

It has always blown my mind that we know so little about the stories of survivors. I read an article in 2014 about the 2004 earthquake and tsunami in Indonesia, and what they were experiencing was similar. Depression, suicide, despair, disconnected lives, solitude, abandonment. In the years following the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami I saw it happening all again. Only this time it was happening in my own backyard, to the people I had grown up amongst. It was happening to my family. It was this close connection that compelled and spurred me into action. It was as though I was being pulled forward by something bigger than myself. Ultimately, it was this drive that led to the founding of  Place to Grow.

Today marks 8 years since the 3.11 earthquake and tsunami that devastated Tohoku. In this time of remembrance, we’re also reflecting on the growth of affected communities and celebrating the hope with which they look into the future. Time has helped with healing; families are coming back together and communities are trying to recreate familiar spaces and build new traditions. Towns and cities are regaining a semblance of normalcy as new stores, homes, roads and community centers are constructed. Yet outward appearances do not account for everything; as the physical reminders of the disaster fade into memory it is all too easy to be dismissive of the ongoing struggle that survivors face.

Streets are still more silent than they used to be, they don’t bustle with tourists the way they once did. Some towns will make it, others won’t, and over time certain support systems will disappear. Towns along the coastline are now defined by this disaster. For children this is an identity and burden that they had no choice in. They need role models and peers that inspire them to create new visions for themselves. This is where volunteers play a role, connecting and helping form bonds within communities.

Place to Grow’s core belief is that providing inspiration, connection, and support to survivors of major disasters is the most important thing we can do to expedite their long-term recovery. Bringing fragmented communities together with workshops that connect young and old, and locals with outside volunteers, is the mechanism we use to make it a reality. Along this journey I’ve learnt what the role of a volunteer can be. I’ve realized that to be a volunteer is not to be a saviour, a hero swooping in to help the helpless. Because what happens is symbiotic. The role of outside volunteers is to challenge and walk with those affected, supporting their journey from victim to survivor.

The act of supporting something bigger than you pushes you to face your limits- emotional, physical and mental. It’s simple things like attempting to write an article, plan a Christmas party, build a social media marketing plan, navigate a road trip or coordinate volunteers. But it’s these challenges that have allowed us to grow. It’s the little things like storytelling tours, local festivals and summer fireworks that encapsulate the healing of communities.

Since the disaster, Place to Grow has organized 8 annual Santa Soul Train events and over 50 other community projects that have allowed us to connect communities in Tohoku with volunteers from around the world. We’ve recently partnered with SOGO Fitness and are excited to pursue our 2019 theme of community building through health and wellness. This journey has been one of growth, learning, and discovery, and we’d like to give a big thank you to everybody who has supported us throughout. As an entirely volunteer-run organization, it is your help that makes this continual recovery possible.

You can stay updated and continue to support Place to Grow through this website or our other platforms:


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Our Wonderful World – Club Asobiba

July 21st - 22nd, 2018

After arriving at Minamisanriku on Saturday, we went to Shizugawa High School to meet with the former principal who will lead the “Minamisanriku Junior Academy”. There, we discussed the details and goals of the program, how PTG will be involved, and presented this to the first prospective participant, his mother, and another interested community member.



6: Local Children

4: Local Adults

5: PTG Volunteers

3: Activities

The program is set to start the first weekend of August, with plans for PTG members to collaborate and get involved with interactively teaching English during our weekend trips. The former principal seemed very excited and hopeful, and the Minamisanriku Junior Academy will become a significant part of PTG moving forward.

On Sunday we arrived at Asobiba around 10:30 and were met by a small yet eager group of kids. We started with introductions, teaching each person to say “Hi my name is____ what’s your name?” and explaining the importance of eye contact. Some of the kids were shy and unsure, muttering the words quietly, or repeating after Angela one word at a time.

They started warming up as we moved on to watching a song on YouTube about the earth and learning the vocabulary words for the day “earth, planet, world, ocean, land etc.” After explaining each word and giving a Japanese translation, we told the kids to come back later with their notebooks to write them down.

We moved on to the craft for the day- finger painting. Each kid got a big piece of paper, and we set up the finger paints in paper cups on the table. At first they were hesitant to dip their fingers in, but once Angela started to paint they all got involved. Everyone got creative in their art from paintings of music notes and Sakura trees to traffic lights and abstract splatters.

Leaving the paintings to dry, the kids moved on to playing in their makeshift pool- blue tarp set up in a wooden structure. Angela, Lisa, and Leah joined in, stepping into the pool and splashing around with the kids to cool down. Kyal, Masaya, and Angela talked chatted with the adults while Leah and Lisa conducted interviews with some of the participants. After lunch of soumen and a group photo, it was time to say goodbye. Practicing their English, the kids said “see you again!” and waved to us as we got into the car to head home.

Before going back to Tokyo, we stopped in to thank and chat to the owner of the local Taxi company who gives us prizes for Santa Soul Train and provides transport for large volunteer groups.

Local Interview #3

1.   Why is a community important to you as a mother?

Having a community allows mothers to meet and learn from various generations, to receive support from the community and grow with their children. Through interactions with people from different backgrounds, children can learn the basics manners, including greetings.

2.   What value do you think the Santa soul train event in MSR brings to your children’s lives?

Children are looking forward to Santa Soul Train every year. Santa Soul Train is where children get to meet and build friendship with people from different countries. Santa Soul Train became their children’s favorite event of the year, especially because there were hardly anything they looked forward to after the 3.11. They also enjoy the performance, food, presents, as well as the English learning opportunities there as well.

3.   Share your hopes or fears for the future around raising your children.

Our concern about the children’s future is that our community doesn’t have very many children now, and we aren’t sure how many people will remain in Minamisanriku in the future. Would there be schools in town? Would the community be sustainable? Would our children continue to want to stay in their hometown? Would our children come back after finishing trading school or college? Minamisanriku was able to recover to this point because of the support from many people, both domestic and international, so we would like our children to love their Minamisanriku, remain here, and revitalize their hometown when they grow up.

Hogan Lovells

Place to Grow Corporate Sponsor Profile

We are excited to share this profile of the wonderful people at Hogan Lovells, who have been supporting Place to Grow through both in-kind donations, staff volunteer support, and financial aid.  Hogan Lovells is a global legal practice that helps corporations, financial institutions, and governmental entities across the spectrum of their critical business and legal issues globally and locally. 

Please tell us about your company, and why you chose to get involved with Place to Grow?

Volunteering and citizenship (corporate social responsibility) is a very important part of the work of all of our employees at Hogan Lovells and we encourage full participation in these types of activities.  In the case of choosing which charities to support, we usually have staff nominate two or three different choices and then everybody votes on which one to support as our main charity for the year.  The democratic process helps to ensure the engagement of the whole office.

We go beyond talking about good Citizenship – we live it every day. Everyone is asked to volunteer at least 25 hours each year as part of normal work duties, and our lawyers devote more than 100,000 hours every year to pro bono matters. We invest our time, talents, and resources in the places where we live and work, and across our global community.

Globally, we run a Community Investment program that covers all volunteering undertaken by our people.  It focuses on non-legal skills and can be undertaken by anyone in our offices. Our staff work closely with local community organisations, charities and schools to develop projects that tackle social issues faced by people in the areas in which our offices are located. Our five priority areas focus on education, employability, mentoring, social welfare, and working with the elderly. Many of our projects also offer our people the opportunity to develop their own skills alongside giving back to our communities. 

What inspires you personally about your work, and about volunteering?

It is inspiring to know that our HL Tokyo office team is constantly striving to become a more all-encompassing, caring group of global citizens. Having an opportunity to volunteer means that one can contribute not only on work matters assigned to the individual but on matters that one has chosen to get involved in that count towards something that matters to Hogan Lovells and society as a whole.  There is a trickle-down effect of this engagement in volunteering and going beyond what one would normally be expected to do when carrying out one's duties at work.  There is a sense of taking responsibility for each other as a team and this inspires one to work at Hogan Lovells and take responsibility also for doing a better job.

Exemplary Citizenship is an integral part of Hogan Lovells’ culture and strategy. Our shared belief in the value of social responsibility is one of the bonds that unifies us as a global firm and we seek to engage all of our offices and people in our Citizenship programs.  Many of us have worked on some impressive and ground-breaking Citizenship activities over the years and are able to provide leadership in this domain as well as in the specialist area of legal practice.

Would you recommend volunteering to other companies or individuals?

Absolutely!  Volunteering is an invaluable way to connect with the wider community, which we are all part of.  Volunteering can provide much needed support to others in the community, as well as offering all participants a chance to develop as individuals, and to learn new skills.  Volunteering is ultimately a rewarding experience for everyone.


Kamiwarizaki Day Camp

 The international community makes it's presence known at our May pick-up Rugby BBQ event!
The international community makes it's presence known at our May pick-up Rugby BBQ event!

PTG’s May workshop was held on May 28th at the Kamiwarizaki Camp Site.  It was a large event that focused on children and families in Minami Sanriku (MSR), in celebration of spring time together, and with members of the international community.

Australia & New Zealand Chamber of Commerce Japan (ANZCCJ) along with Club Australia and Street Rugby Association held a street rugby game. They explained the basic rules to the participants and practiced passing the ball back and fourth before getting into the game.

Street rugby was followed by a BBQ. US Navy from Misawa Air Base provided the meat, buns, and condiments, and Hoshi-Gumi volunteers organized vegetables, oysters, scallops and drinks through their local connections.

PTG founder Angela Ortiz provided face painting throughout the event. The navy played soccer with kids after the BBQ. Overall, it was an afternoon loaded with activities and fun!

 Local delicacies on the BBQ.
Local delicacies on the BBQ.

“The weather was fantastic and Kamiwarizaki was the perfect location to play sports and have a BBQ. My son enjoyed playing soccer and even got to keep the ball at the end. It was a valuable experience to interact with so many people. Thank you for the fun time.”

“My son and I had a lot of fun, the time went by so quickly. Kids normally have to play in a contained space, so it was great to see my son run around freely for three hours. His eyes were sparkling when he told me he was very happy he got to play a lot with other kids. We the moms were able to chat a lot in the meantime so we had a lovely time as well.”

 BBQ preparations underway by volunteers.
BBQ preparations underway by volunteers.

We invited MSR attendees through various means, including posting flyers in Hotel Kanyo, asked Warasuko Expedition (a part of MSR Reconstruction Network that organizes children’s activities) to share information with past participants, and through personal connections and word-of-mouth.

Our current challenges are to increase the visibility of PTG, and secure a large enough participant pool. We are talking to a local group about a potential partnership with PTG to plug in volunteers and internationally-themed activities into an existing network and organization.  Stay tuned!

By the Numbers

25: Local Children Participants

30: Local Adult Participants

40: Volunteers from ANZCCJ, Club Australia and Street Rugby Association

10: Volunteers from Misawa Navy

5: Volunteers from Hoshi-Gumi and Oraho (OGA’s local partners)

5: Volunteers from OGA